Houston Civic Symphony

by John Snyder

Overture to The Ruins of Athens Ludwig van Beethoven

Even before motion pictures had sound, they had music, and theaters had orchestras to provide what celluloid could not. And before there were movies at all, music had its place in the theater, even in genres not inherently “musical” in nature. Thus Mendelssohn wrote music to accompany Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Edward German provided dances for Henry VIII. Though hardly a man of the theater, with only one opera and one ballet to his credit, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) nevertheless composed incidental music for several plays, scattered over the course of his career. The best known of these efforts are the scores for Egmont and Coriolanus, and these are remembered almost exclusively for their overtures. Beethoven composed music for von Kotzebue’s festival play The Ruins of Athens in 1811; the first performance took place early in 1812. Besides the overture, the music includes several songs and choruses, and the best-known item, a Turkish March.

The Ruins of Athens is not a tragedy (unlike Coriolanus and Egmont), and Beethoven kept his curtain-raiser appropriately light and airy. The general shape is conventional enough: a slow introduction followed by an allegro. But the allegro is here not in the expected sonata form, there being no genuine second theme. Instead, the allegro is a more a ternary design, with the middle section acting as a trio. There is a lengthy preparation for the return of the principal theme, and its ending is slightly elongated to function as a coda.

Concerto in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra Max Bruch

First taught music by his mother (a singer), Max Bruch (1838-1920) began to compose before he was in his teens, and at age fourteen won an award that enabled him to study with three leading composition teachers of the time, Hiller, Reinecke, and Breunung. In the early 1860s he settled in Mannheim and composed an opera, Die Loreley (produced in 1863), and a cantata for male voices, Frithjof (1864); these works quickly earned him a place in German musical life. From 1865-67 he was music director at Koblenz, and it was there that he composed his first violin concerto in G minor. Although he was to compose two more violin concertos and the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra (among other fine efforts), the present offering quickly became so popular as to upstage the rest of his oeuvre, much to Bruch’s dismay. Bruch ended his career as director of a master class in composition at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1890-1911), but even before his appointment there he was becoming an outsider in German musical life, due to his forthright criticism of the New German School (Wagner and Liszt). Nevertheless, he was considered a good composition teacher, and the young Vaughan Williams and Respighi were among his pupils.

The G-minor Violin Concerto is in three movements, with the first being somewhat unusual in form. It is titled Vorspiel (Prelude), and begins much like a conventional sonata form movement. An introductory section (which, however, is at the main tempo) is followed by a fairly conventional exposition, in which two themes are presented: the first dramatic with many chords for the soloist, and the second lyrical. A development follows, leading through closely related keys, and returning to the tonic—but there is no conventional recapitulation. Instead, the introductory material returns, framing the movement. There is, however, no final cadence; rather, the introductory material dissolves into a bridge, leading seamlessly to the second movement. This adagio is in sonata form, though the themes are not strongly contrasting, in the expected key of E-flat major. This movement displays Bruch’s considerable skill at shaping melodies. The finale begins with a transition from the slow movement, returning us to the key of G, but this time G major. The sonata-form exposition begins with the entrance of the solo violin; again, the first theme features chords and double-stops, followed by a lyrical second theme. The movement is formally straight-forward and uncomplicated. It is perhaps noteworthy that none of the movements contains a real cadenza.

For further reading:
Fitfield, Christopher. Max Bruch: His Life and Works. New York: G. Braziller, 1988.

A Musical Joke Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) died a month short of his thirty-sixth birthday, the Berlin Musical Weekly printed an obituary notice that included the observation “In his life he was constantly the object of cabals, which he at times may well have provoked by his sans souci manner.” As Peter Davies notes, “Sans Souci, a term coined in 1718, offers an excellent description of Mozart’s carefree manner and frivolity.” Robert Gutman tells how Mozart, his wife Constanze, and their close friend Gottfried von Jacquin engaged in “merrymaking” that he describes as “madcap.” Gutman imagines von Jacquin egging Mozart on in creating a musical practical joke, a lampooning of the failings of lesser composers (or a caricaturing of the work of perfectly competent ones). But where Gutman sees lighthearted humor, Davies presents evidence for cyclothymic disorder as the source of Mozart’s well-documented oddities of character—including his sense of humor.

Whatever the origins of the little divertimento known as A Musical Joke (completed in 1787), it is indeed a delightfully funny piece. The humor varies, moreover, from sly witticisms apparently intended for insiders to near slapstick. Among the former are violations of eighteenth-century part-writing conventions, which would hardly offend anyone now, and whichwould have required a keen ear to detect then. At the other extreme, he writes in the Minuet horn parts calculated make the players sound as though they have mis-transposed and are in the wrong key. In between, there are spoofs of a number of musical conventions of the day. The first movement’s first theme has a metrical structure that somehow comes out a measure short of expectations. The solo violin cadenza in the third movement gets hopelessly lost, and is rescued by a trill of a third (then fashionable, but only briefly so). The main theme of the last movement is a binary form, but a thoroughly atypical one: the first strain modulates to the wrong key, then aborts that and cadences in the tonic; the second strain wanders to tonally distant places, at a stylistically impossible point in the movement. The fugal passages are so bare as to be amateurish. And there are comically inappropriate changes in dynamics throughout all the movements. The final blow is the presentation of the last three chords in four keys simultaneously—as it were, an eighteenth-century Bronx cheer in music.

The literature on Mozart is vast; the following may be of special interest.
Davies, Peter J. Mozart: His Character and Health. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Gutman, Robert W. Mozart: A Cultural Biography. NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999.

Huapango J. Pablo Moncayo

José Pablo Moncayo García (1912-1958) was born in Guadalajara, and studied at the Mexico City Conservatory. His principal composition teacher was Carlos Chavez, and he later took some additional lessons from Chavez’s friend Aaron Copland. He began his professional career in 1931, as a percussionist with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra (now the National Symphony Orchestra). He served as conductor of that ensemble from 1949-54. Moncayo was interested in working with Mexican folk idioms in a nationalist vein, and to that end in 1934 was a founder of the Grupo de Jóvenes Compositores, later known as Grupo de los Cuatros (“Group of Four”). The other members were Blas Galindo Dimas (1910-93), Salvador Contreras (1910-82), and Daniel Ayala Pérez (1906-75). Eventually the other composers went their separate ways, adopting various modern idioms, so that Moncayo’s early death represents the closing of that phase of Mexican music. Moncayo himself worked also with Impressionistic techniques in such pieces as Amatzinac and Bosques, and his opera, La mulata de Córdoba. These have, perhaps unfortunately, been overshadowed by his most popular work, Huapango, composed in 1941. This piece is based solidly on Mexican folk materials, incorporating especially the folk dances el siquisirií, el balahú, and el gavilán. The result is a very appealing mix of distinctly Latin rhythms; when two or more are combined, the resulting cross-rhythms become quite colorful.

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